All political careers are said to end in failure and Ieuan Wyn Jones is hardly going out on a high note. But he has surely secured his place in Welsh political history as the man who finally took Plaid Cymru into government and who played a crucial role in securing the referendum –and a ‘yes’ vote- giving the Assembly greater law-making powers.
He’s had a long career in nationalist politics. He once admitted to shedding a tear in Llandaff Cathedral when AMs gathered for a service to mark the election of the first Assembly. They were singing a hymn (A prayer for Wales) written by the Rev Lewis Valentine, one of the founders of Plaid Cymru and a family friend. (His father, like Valentine, was a chapel minister).
A solicitor, he was 25 when he first stood for Parliament and he first became an influential figure in Plaid Cymru when he lead a commission of inquiry into the party’s performance after the twin setbacks of a massive ‘no’ vote in the March 1979 devolution referendum and the defeat of Gwynfor Evans in Carmarthen two months later. He became an MP in 1987, winning Ynys Môn from the Conservatives.
He was director of Plaid Cymru’s first Assembly election campaign, which took the party to a level of support never seen before or since. He became acting leader in 2000 when Dafydd Wigley had heart trouble. When Wigley returned, Ieuan Wyn Jones rather brutally told him it was time to stand down permanently and was elected the new leader and party president.
He had a rough first few years as leader. In 2001 he neither fully backed nor condemned Gwynedd Councillor Seimon Glyn’s outspoken views on the negative impact of English immigration into Welsh speaking communities. This allowed Glenys Kinnock to describe him a “weak leader” as she took a close personal interest in Labour’s successful campaign to win the Ynys Môn Westminster seat when Ieuan Wyn Jones stood down as an MP.
The 2003 Assembly election was a major setback for Plaid Cymru, losing all of the shock wins (Rhondda, Islwyn, Llanelli and Conwy) of four years earlier. Ieuan Wyn Jones was told he had lost the confidence of his party group of AMs and resigned as leader and president.
He subsequently decided to contest the post of leader in the Assembly but not the Presidency. He narrowly won the Assembly job but this led to a period when the party’s overall leader was the new president, Dafydd Iwan.
Ieuan Wyn Jones long suffered by comparison to party figures who were better orators. His predecessors, Dafydd Wigley, Dafydd Elis Thomas and Gwynfor Evans all had distinct but effective speaking styles, as did Dafydd Iwan.
But as Labour slipped into minority government and slid in the polls. Ieuan Wyn came out fighting. In a bloodless coup, he had the overall leadership restored to him (Dafydd Iwan was left with the title but not the previous power of party president).
In 2007, Plaid won back some, though not all, of the seats lost in 2003. He rejected the idea of supporting a minority Labour government and began negotiations with the Conservative and Liberal Democrats to form a rainbow coalition. He was within an inch of becoming First Minister when the Lib Dems backed out.
Ieuan Wyn Jones said of that time:
“The tragedy is that there was a real opportunity for a new form of politics, with a fresh start for Wales.
“There was quite an invigorating feeling as we were preparing the document, with the sense that we were on the threshold of a new beginning.”
The Lib Dems changed their minds a few days later but Rhodri Morgan had by then been reappointed First Minister –and was willing to discuss a coalition with Plaid Cymru.
Ieuan Wyn Jones became Deputy First Minister and so led Plaid into government, achieving power 82 years after it was founded.
He had finally escaped the shadow of Dafydd Wigley, Gwynfor Evans and the rest.
Success in achieving office notably boosted his confidence, he gave what was probably his best ever speech when the referendum on the Assembly’s law-making powers was won in March.
Today he claimed that as well as the referendum victory, he was responsible for; “transforming the Welsh government’s relationship with business and investing in improved transport links across the nation”.
He added: “The government I was a member of invested in the foundation phase and maintained our hospital services across Wales by reversing the cuts proposed by the previous Labour government.
“I am also extremely proud of the fact that the Welsh language has been given official status, and the role of Welsh medium education has been strengthened.
“Plaid also ensured that we had a strong, stable and progressive government and that, in no small measure gave the people of Wales a reason to vote a resounding ‘yes’ in the referendum”.
Nevertheless he was still seen as weak by many in Labour and Peter Hain set the tone for Labour’s election campaign by attacking the Plaid Cymru leader’s competence as a minister.
Ieuan Wyn Jones claimed –as he had to- that he was running for First Minister in the 2011 Assembly election. But he knew he would either end his career with another term as deputy or else leave office for good.
Today he admitted that he never intended to lead Plaid Cymru into the 2016 election:
“It had always been my intention to step down as party leader sometime during the course of this Assembly, whatever the result of the election.
“The time is now right for me to make that clear and to say that I will be standing down as leader sometime within the first half of this Assembly term.
“I am equally clear that an immediate leadership election would not serve the party’s best interests given the need for the review which needs to take place.
“I will need to discuss with colleagues and the wider party the appropriate time for a leadership election to take place within the timeframe I have announced. There also needs to be sufficient time for a new Leader to establish him/herself well before 2016”.
However, I understand that he wants to step down sooner rather than later, although he has not forced the timetable by resigning at once.
We can expect that when Plaid Cymru’s National Executive holds a joint meeting with the party’s AMs and MPs tomorrow, they will want to get a new leader in place before they have to decide how to react if Labour seeks a formal arrangement with another party, possibly even another coalition partner.
That could mean a new leader this autumn, certainly by this time next year.